Proposed cuts to the culture sector in Wales will have a devastating impact
Heledd Fychan, Plaid Cymru MS for South Wales Central
Our national collections are at risk, and our cultural, arts and heritage sectors are in crisis.
For years, consecutive Welsh Government commissioned reports have confirmed the warnings coming from our national cultural and heritage institutions and organisations that they are underfunded, both in terms of capital and revenue funding. And for years, consecutive Labour ministers and deputy ministers have failed to heed those warnings.
Amgueddfa Cymru, the National Library of Wales, Arts Council Wales and the Welsh Books Council are facing a 10.5% reduction in their revenue budgets, whilst Cadw and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales are facing a 22% cut.
In terms of the Welsh Government’s overall budget, the savings are minimal yet the impact will be devastating.
In December, Jane Richardson – the Chief Executive of Amgueddfa Cymru – whilst giving evidence to the Senedd’s Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport, and International Relations Committee could not have stated more clearly the current risk to the collections: “When we are expecting a storm or heavy rain, we have to put staff on standby, literally, so they can come into the building in the middle of the night to take paintings off the walls”.
She also stated that £90m is needed across the whole estate, which consists of the seven national museums and the collections centre in Nantgarw. This includes £25m for critical urgent works at National Museum Cardiff, and of course, the upkeep of Big Pit. Although it is no longer a working coal mine, the museum still operates under the stringent regulations of Mines and Quarries Health and Safety legislation and safety remains paramount in order to be able to run the underground tours.
These warnings should not be taken lightly, or dismissed as the sector being alarmist.
In 2016, the Natural History Museum in Delhi was destroyed in a fire, years after concerns were raised about maintenance.
And in 2018, the National Museum of Brazil was destroyed in a fire and 92.5% of the nation’s national collections – built up over 200 years – vanished overnight due to a faulty air conditioning unit. Inspectors had warned of a fire risk as early as 2004, and the government had pressed on with funding cuts despite these warnings.
Following the fire, Luiz Duaret – one of the museum’s vice directors – was clear that political failings were at fault for letting the museum fall into disrepair and was quoted as saying: “For many years we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed”. He added “My feeling is of total dismay and immense anger.”
Wales has already suffered a close call, following the fire on the roof of the National Library of Wales in 2013 which damaged a small part of the library’s collection. Burying our heads in the sand, and hoping it won’t happen again here in Wales isn’t a strategic approach to our national memory.
The other risk to our collections, heritage and culture relates to the loss of staff, which will be inevitable given the scale of the cuts being proposed. Voluntary redundancy schemes are already open, with compulsory schemes likely to follow. We will lose experts and practitioners that not only care for our cultural assets, but also help engage people of every age and background with them. There won’t be time for succession planning, or training others in those skills.
The ability to lever funds from trusts, foundations and donors will also be curtailed. Because Wales has consistently led the way in making culture and our collections accessible, many of our organisations have become increasingly successful at securing additional funding which has made up for the gaps in revenue funding. This is also being put at risk by the cuts.
When it comes to our national museums, the Welsh Government seems to think that scrapping free entry and allowing Amgueddfa Cymru to charge for entry is a potential solution. It is not.
Since 2001, free entry has been a hugely successful policy, resulting in more than a doubling of visitors to our museums annually. Notably, there has been a significant increase amongst families from a lower socio-economic background.
Speaking ten years after the policy was introduced, Huw Lewis, then Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage said: “This is a ‘made in Wales’ success story for Devolution, the Welsh Government and Amgueddfa Cymru. The free entry policy strikes the right balance between meeting the needs of existing loyal visitors and attracting newer, harder to reach audiences as well as addressing barriers to access such as poverty and social exclusion.
“It has been key to both increasing volume and also appealing to a broad range of people from our communities. Before free entry, less than 250,000 visitors were from less affluent groups but over the 10 years of the policy, the figure has doubled.”
Thirteen years later, and the Welsh Government seems to be considering a U-turn. Neither Vaughan Gething nor Jeremy Miles in their manifestoes for being the next First Minister of Wales commit to free entry with the former hinting that it may only be applicable to under 18s from now one with this policy pledge: “Investigate the potential for introducing a cultural passport for under 18-year olds, to ensure that young people from every background can access arts, culture, and creative opportunities.”
Of course those working in these sectors understand the challenges to the overall budget, and the pressures on social care, health, education and so on. But they also understand how culture and the arts interacts with each of these portfolios, as well as the economic value culture brings to Wales which can then be invested in public services.
To cut them is not only shortsighted, but also harms the Welsh economy. This was clearly illustrated in Cadw’s Heritage Counts report, published in January 2020 just prior to the pandemic which stated: “The latest figures show that of 75m day visitors to Wales, 8.1m overnight visitors and 784k overseas visitors, 26.54m were motivated to visit by the historic environment. In 2018, those visitors spent £1.72bn.” If you added culture and the arts to the figures, then the impact is even greater.
On one hand, the Welsh Government seems to acknowledge this, by the very fact that “A Wales of Vibrant Culture and Thriving Welsh Language” is one of the seven Well-being goals in the Well-being of Future Generations Act.
A number of National Well-being Indicators also relate to culture and heritage such as “Participation in arts, culture and heritage; Professional standards in heritage collections and Looking after our cultural heritage”.
However, actions speak louder than words, and I fear that this goal is one that is not given the focus it needs from government. This must change, and I hope the next First Minister will elevate culture to a Ministerial post, and work with these sectors to realise their even greater potential. Our culture and heritage must be safeguarded, for both current and future generations.
Heledd Fychan is laid Cymru spokesperson for Culture and Member of the Senedd for South Wales Central. Prior to being elected in 2021, Heledd worked for Amgueddfa Cymru and was Chair of the Museum Association’s Ethics Committee.
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